Glance at any praline recipe and you will see a simple list of sugar, butter, liquid, and of course pecans. But a praline's complexity lies not with the ingredients but with the cooking process, or the cooking temperature to be exact. Too hot and the pralines will be brittle, not hot enough and they will be grainy. A candy thermometer is supposed to take all the guess work out of the process, but don't believe it. Thermometers are like a broken crutch: use it at your peril.
Here is my latest batch of pralines in the final stage of cooking. The thermometer read "soft ball" stage, which according to various source can range between 234 and 238 degrees F.
When the correct temperature is reached, the pralines are removed from the heat and whipped until the syrups starts to stiffen and turn cloudy. After just a few stirs, I noticed a slight graininess developing in the mixture.
But as usual, I was in a rush so I ignored my misgivings and started spooning the pralines onto the pan.
I let my babies cool for just a minute and then popped one into my mouth (there is nothing like the feel of half molten sugar burning the roof of you mouth). I chomped the praline into bits and allowed it to dissolve on my tongue. Sh#@! I could feel the grains of sugar in my mouth. The pralines had not reached the correct temperature.
I was torn. What should I do?
Where they good enough to serve to my guest?
A big fat double NO.
I'll feed you DRY cake any day, but I will not stoop to serving grainy pralines.
So back in the pot they went for another try.
Crush them up and add just a little bit more milk. Cook them to the correct temperature (I went to 242 degrees this time) and pretend that the flop never happened.
So what was the problem?
Why were my pralines grainy?
I always test my thermometer's accuracy before I use it, so that wasn't the problem. Was it the humidity? The position of the moon? The value of the stock market?
I don't know why pralines are sometimes "off", but to my frustration it happens quite often.
Maybe one day (when I have more time for experimenting), I'll discover the secret to a foolproof praline.
Until then I'm gonna start using two thermometers.
Just a side note: to test the accuracy of your thermometer, place it in a pot of plain boiling water. At sea level it should read 212 degrees F. If it registers above or below that number, make the necessary adjustments when cooking the pralines. And remember at higher altitudes to subtract 1 degree for every 500 feet above sea level.